The things we leave behind
’ve always been enamored with old buildings, the kind you see standing haggard and hunkered down along a county road or state highway.
Or, when you’re sitting in the passenger seat as he zips past on the interstate and you’re looking out at where the sky finally meets the curve of the earth, you might catch a glimpse of a memory way out there on a section line. A school maybe. A church?
It would be small and unassuming except for the lack of trees and similar structures on the prairie landscape, and it might as well be a castle. To me, a place like that holds as many mysteries.
I don’t think the sentiment toward abandoned places or things is unique to people who grew up on these Plains dotted with weathered-out buildings, humble, tumbling barns and a row or two of lilac bushes and windbreak trees left to fend for themselves against the prairie elements. On days when the wind blows 40 miles an hour or the temperature drops well below freezing, I build up more of a sentimental response to those who came before us and how they might have survived it, well aware that I am here because they did more than stay alive somehow.
On top of a hill in the horse pasture connected to our barnyard, if you stand the right amount of back and look close enough, you will find two sets of teepee rings, armfuls of nice granite boulders placed in the dirt in a nearly perfect circle under the big blue sky. I stand up there and wonder what it looked like all those years ago, without fences, or water tanks, without this smattering of bur oaks and ash growing taller in the draws. Without houses or roads.
If you put yourself in the right spot out here, there are a few places you can look that don’t so evidently reflect the modern era. You can imagine it then, how high the grass might have grown, how thick the mosquito swarm, how you might find more value in a flower or the creek that runs through it all. How different the quiet sounded.
And it’s so much easier to think about the lives of the souls who left structures and tools and equipment behind for us to ponder, to poke around in, to photograph. We forget these days that there was a time humans lived without leaving so much behind. It’s remarkable to think about, the innovation we’re capable of as humans and how it can simultaneously make us and break us.
I’ve said this before about living on this 110-year-old ranch. I’m a fourth generation raising the fifth, and some days, I feel like I’m surrounded by ghosts. My girls dig in the sand under their swings and they find a glass medicine container, pieces of ceramic bowls and plates, a 7UP bottle. We’ve built on top of an old burn pile, and some things don’t go so quickly back to the earth.
Dad dropped fencing pliers in the east pasture 20 years ago, and I stumble upon it on my evening walk. I wonder, who will someday find that hat I caught on a tree a few years back?
My husband digs out the corners of the old shop, grease cans and motor parts, welding units and scrap metal, wooden skis and a chair no one truly thought they could part with. Except they could. They did. There’s nothing left in that shop worth photographing, really, and so we might as well make it useful.
I fall off my horse at 10 years old and pick up a perfect arrowhead, just laying there now with no job but to be discovered, making us wonder what it might have been like before the world turned 55,000 times, day by day slowly shedding the past for valiant pursuit of the future…